October 6, 2022
As an intern in the Stedelijk’s Research and Curatorial Practice department, Master student Valeria Mari researched the new vision put into practice since Rein Wolfs became director in 2019. For her research project Staff Shares: Towards a Museum of Belonging, she interviewed Curator Leontine Coelewij, Head of the Education and Inclusion department Emma Harjadi Herman, Senior Editor Gwen Parry, and Press Officer Marie-José Raven. Her questions arose from her interest in how the Stedelijk is reframing and repurposing its collection to be more inclusive of women artists, gender-diverse makers, as well as artists associated with diaspora. By doing so, she sets out to understand how the Stedelijk is changing its narrative through its research, curatorial practice, education, and publication programs.
This extended interview with Senior Editor | Research and Curatorial Practice Gwen Parry kicks off the series, after which clipped interviews will be published weekly throughout October 2022.
VM: When did you start at the Stedelijk, and how has it been working with the museum’s online and offline publications?
GP: I started working at the museum’s about five years ago. Back then, I worked for the publications department, which was part of the Education and Interpretation department. Then, roughly two years ago, we became part of the Research and Curatorial Practice department.
Together with the Head of Research and Curatorial Practice, Charl Landvreugd, I take care of the wealth of research done within and around the museum, making sure its articulation meets the highest standards, and is shared with our publics. The most immediate way in which research trickles down into society, is through the wall labels: the texts mounted in the museum’s exhibition spaces (fig. 1). In addition, we take care of the online research platform Stedelijk Studies, the peer-reviewed Stedelijk Studies Journal, the Szine, and we work closely with artists and designers to publish artists’ books.
In terms of reach, the museum research that ends up being visible in the museum and shared in wall texts is particularly potent: beheld by so many eyes, while physically encountering something that has stirred the beholder somehow. Apparently, many regard museums as highly trustworthy—ranking second only to friends and family—and significantly more trustworthy than scientists, NGOs, news organizations, and the government. What we therefore choose to write on the walls of the gallery spaces feels significant. Selecting the angle and words is a delicate process involving several authors and readers, whereby we sometimes also invite external researchers and advisors to help us think through the narrative and language we use. Madonna recently said: “we live in a very literal world, especially now”, which for all its simplicity struck me as an apt and timely observation. Language is remarkably contested at the moment—particularly when a trusted institution speaks. For example, in a wall text describing the work Run from Fear/Fun from Rear (1972) by Bruce Nauman, my choice to use the word “raunchy” actually incited an author to write a harsh but brilliant polemic against the museum’s framing of the artist (which we subsequently published on the Stedelijk Studies online platform!).
Fig. 1: The opening wall text for the exhibition It’s Our F***ing Backyard, Designing Material Futures, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, being read at the opening in May 2022.
VM: Thanks Gwen for this journey through time of museum publications from its earliest days to the present. Taking a closer look at the last decade, how do you think the change of directorships over the last ten years has impacted the Research and Curatorial Practice department, and why?
GP: It is interesting to probe how museum directors throughout history have impacted what, how much, and how we publish. Many still feel that books are an important part of how a museum’s history is archived and made manifest; books are what remains after exhibitions are dismantled. Publications also enable research into a museum’s institutional history, from its graphic design practices to how the language with which we describe art, artists, their surroundings and value has developed over the decades.
When I started at the museum at the beginning of 2018, Beatrix Ruf had just left as director. As far as I learned from the period before my arrival, Ruf was a great enabler and supporter of book publishing at the museum. Many titles were made under her directorship, including several artists’ books and hefty catalogues. After the interim director Jan Willem Sieburgh (2017–19), who mainly worked hard to keep things afloat publication-wise, current director Rein Wolfs followed. Under his supervision artist and scholar Charl Landvreugd was appointed Head of the Research and Curatorial Practice, making publications part of this new department. This has greatly impacted our publishing activities, making publications a more intrinsic part of the museum’s overarching research ambitions. Compared to how we worked upon my arrival, loosely in the spirit of Ruf just after her departure, our repositioning has meant a gentle shift away from more traditional Bildung ideals of books as a means of educating the public. More and more, we are developing content that is less informative-driven and instead prioritizes criticality. We are for example publishing critical reflections of our exhibitions, complemented by so-called “research logs” that the exhibition curators write about the process leading up to the exhibition. This has enabled the sharing of a wealth of preparatory research that was formerly often outshone by the finished exhibition. This publishing shift meshes with the more discursive, multivocal museum that has come to characterize Wolfs’ directorship. We hope the changes we made have ushered our readers more closely into (the vulnerability of) our own subjectivity—in order to prompt them to investigate their own.
VM: You briefly mentioned that part of your work is now focused on the research strand of diaspora as a possible museum strategy. Could you elaborate a little more on how the idea of “diaspora” is shaping your publishing program?
GP: Recently, the museum has been reevaluating its acquisition policies: what do we collect exactly, and with what mandate? As a possible answer to this we have been discussing what a focus on the museum’s own locality would signify. Our base, in the city of Amsterdam, in the country of the Netherlands, on the European continent, is home to many communities, including diasporas from all over the world. There are a couple of diasporic communities that are particularly well-represented, for various historical reasons.
So rather than trying to diversify our collection and program along global and often unclear notions of inclusivity, such as including more “non-Western” art, we wonder whether focusing on makers that represent the richness of identities and histories closely related to our own subjectivity as a museum is worth exploring.
While the diasporic frameworks are still being formed on the policy level, we are already developing some projects that focus on kinship building and strengthening cultural affiliations—intrinsic to the diasporic framework under review. Together with Edwin Nasr, we are, for example, currently exploring the possibility of creating materials around his research into the questions raised by the work The Neighbour by Marlene Dumas (fig. 2). The painting portrays Mohammed B, who was found guilty of killing the Dutch filmmaker and social commentator Theo van Gogh. Made in 2005, the work raises questions about the depiction of Muslims in the Dutch media that are still relevant today. With the upcoming program, however, we equally want to discuss what the presentation of this portrait in the Stedelijk does to the representation of Muslim communities, as one of the very few depictions that are here. So, by focusing on the diasporas present in the museum’s immediate surroundings, which have historically often been overlooked by the museum, we can engage more meaningfully with what and where we are.
Fig. 2: Marlene Dumas, The Neighbour, 2005, oil on canvas, 89.5 x 100 x 2.5 cm, donation from the artist and Galerie Paul Andriesse to Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
VM: Focusing more on Wolf’s current directorship, how have publications interacted with the new collection presentation developed in 2021–22 whose three parts are titled, respectively: Tomorrow is a Different Day, collection 1980–Now; Everyday, Someday, and Other Stories, collection 1950–1980; and Yesterday Today, collection until 1950?
GP: The publications department took care of the wall texts for the new collection presentation, wherein we took a different approach than for those of the former one, Stedelijk BASE (2017–22), which opened during Beatrix Ruf’s directorship. The strength of Stedelijk BASE was letting the audience guide themselves through the collection, in a large open space that could be freely navigated. The museum took an intentionally marginal approach in being a guiding, curating hand, which could be seen as an important emancipating gesture toward the audience at the time, showing how the institution’s canonical authority was trying to loosen and open itself up—possibly democratize itself. Also, the design of the collection handbook Let Me Be Your Guide published at that time cleverly embodied this concept: the cover consists of empty frames on which readers themselves can stick stickers of artworks according to their taste. It was, however, also apparent that the activism of BASE did not extend to analyzing the politics of the makeup of the collection itself: it did not set out to work through the historic exclusion of diverse makers and was criticized by some for perpetuating it.
The wall texts within BASE were quite traditional in their explanatory tone of voice, often with an emphasis on the work’s affective potential. I noticed that the texts mostly set out to position the works of art thematically, frequently emphasizing their universal human resonance. They often spoke directly to the reader, asking “what do you think” or “feel?”, bringing the works close to the emotional world of the beholder.
For the current collection presentation’s wall texts, we went in a different direction. In addition to the curatorial focus of the exhibition on engagement/protest, diaspora, and women makers, as an editorial approach I wanted to welcome the reader into the Stedelijk’s own considerations around the works on view. In the texts, we have awarded lots of attention to the context within which they were made and purchased, as well as are now being shown. In doing so, I believe the labels are drawing our audiences in even more closely, trusting them to not only feel the art, but also to invite them to reflect with us on what an institution like the Stedelijk is to do in this insurgent historical moment. I often feel that museums are currently somewhat in a crisis of purpose, albeit a productive and compelling one.
Many museums are going through an unparalleled, potent re-evaluation of who they are, including what kind of institutions they want to be in the future, and what to do with their—often troubling—legacy as gatekeepers of modernity.
This has signified a true unsettling of authorship, because from what positionality does the Stedelijk speak, what does it represent?
We have centered the museum as the main subject and object of research in our Szine, the Stedelijk Studies Journal, and in many wall texts. We are experimenting with what it means to be a more self-aware platform for artists and their artworks. This has also meant engaging with our own implication, possibly also in harmful structures. In Hito Steyerl’s piece Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013), she investigates the parallels between conflict zones and spaces where art is displayed (fig. 3). In this work, Steyerl implicates herself by acknowledging her own relationship to the military complex through her collaboration with the museums that have purchased or shown her work. It is a stark reminder of how one can’t fully withdraw from the powers that be, and that we all profit from injustices—even those committed to end them. It is interesting to me to operate from an awareness of one’s own implication and the inability of impartiality, in the hope that it is infectious.
Fig. 3: Performance-lecture Is the Museum a Battlefield?, 2013, in the exhibition Hito Steyerl: I WILL SURVIVE, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2022. Photo: Maarten Nauw.
At other times, we have opted for the opposite: decentering the institution. For example, by inviting artists to write their own wall texts as we did in the gallery room that centers on the Wakaman movement (fig. 4), a group of artists whose work has been paramount to the artistic advocacy against the institutionalized whiteness of Dutch museums. We gave the makers a free space to write what they wanted the museum visitor to read about their work being shown at the Stedelijk now—which is arguably overdue. This meant printing words that we would usually avoid, because we felt this was an important moment to take a step back and truly offer an indiscriminate platform.
Fig. 4: Exhibition room centered on the Wakaman movement in Tomorrow is a Different Day, Collection 1980–Now, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2022. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.
VM: I like the idea of the museum as a multivocal platform, and that this can be experienced in the new collection presentation. I am also curious to know more about the public thoughts and reactions to the changes. Have you noticed any change in how the museum’s external community responds to the recent publications?
GP: It is a good question, and I am keen to conduct some research among our visitors to understand their response more deeply. But the reviews in the press of recent exhibitions and programming have been pretty mixed. Some journalists applaud the new collection presentation’s scope and approach, and its gleeful audacity to propose new collection highlights. Others have been critical of the museum’s new direction, fearing a departure from “art” in a narrow sense, and likely missing the more traditional exhibition catalogues. Of course, there is a considerable backlash against the seismic shifts occurring in representation globally, even among influential art critics. To many, meddling with the established canon is considered a woke misconduct, that is trying to deceptively alter history in retrospect. Such resistance to change is hugely interesting and I like the idea of the museum as a space where such concerns can be shared, too.
VM: I was reading some annual reports of the museum and discovered that a symbolic “momentous” has recently been identified, which formally distinguishes Stedelijk museum visions and narratives that belong to the past from those that belong to the present. What do you think this “momentous” is from your perspective and experience as senior editor, and why?
GP: Museums are of course largely modernist constructs that perform a power dynamic in the practice of “putting on display”, especially when purporting to do so in a neutral and knowledgeable manner. Particularly in the act of presenting “the other” this dynamic has not infrequently damaged communities in the process. This history is something museums need to deal with thoroughly and delicately if we wish to break what political theorists would call the “path dependency”. This makes research at the museum so incredibly important at this moment of regenerative energy: when we study this legacy, at length and in depth, we can dissect its remnants. As mentioned, part of this research has meant implicating ourselves in what we critique, and asking artists and other thinkers to speculate with us on whether a museum can exist beyond its foundations as a modernist construct, and even become something else.
The “momentous” you are referring to was meant as a symbolic line in the sand in the museum’s history that communicates that whatever was acquired before this moment, constitutes our “historical” collection that we wish to study rather than perpetuate. Notwithstanding that this historical part of the collection of course contains stunning works that we continue to show and celebrate, it is important to argue that as a collection, it does not reflect artistic quality per se, but that it is a very specific cultural expression within a demarcated time and place. The subsequent historical period that comes after this momentous is what we would consider our current policy.
VM: I think this is a sign of great awareness and an act of responsibility being taken by museums. Could you clarify what actions and positions the Stedelijk has taken in this regard?
GP: The reopening of the Stedelijk’s museum building in 2012 after the lengthy renovation and extension roughly marks the beginning of what we now consider our current museum practice. But you could just as easily describe this former period as the ending of the “long twentieth century”. It is used as a conceptual division to loosely create a demarcation from former display and acquisition policies. As was the case in many museums around the world, previous curators and directors have acquired relatively little work by women artists, people of color, and sexual and other minorities for many decades and our publications reflect that. But today, much effort is being made by my colleagues to make a different, more balanced selection that embraces a rich tapestry of makers. The momentous is meant to reflect that we wish to take responsibility for what we do today, without believing that we should play catch-up in terms of numbers. Not only because we lack the funds to do so, but also because it can be meaningful to put exclusion itself “on display”. Of course, new acquisitions help shift the balance, but in terms of quantity in a very minimal way. So rather than setting out to fundamentally alter the fiber of the historic collection, we wish to accommodate its analysis as a collection of the past, as an expression of material culture, that should be studied as a whole—from an art-historical perspective, but perhaps also as an anthropological curiosity.
VM: It is nice to know that the Stedelijk is working to make its collection socially relevant and representative of our diverse society. We can already appreciate how the museum is paying different attention to women artists in the current collection presentation. For instance, in Everyday, Someday, and Other Stories, with works from the collection between 1950 and 1980, women are among the main characters. I assume it is not a coincidence that this exhibition begins and ends with two rooms dedicated to women artists. Is it one of Stedelijk’s strategies to subvert the dominance of male artists who used to be exhibited at the museum? Are there any publication methods to convey that?
GP: The curators who conceived of the new collection presentation explicitly set out to tell “different” stories about art and society during this period. The biggest challenge for us at publications was whether in addition to doing things differently than before, we wanted to make this explicit in the discussion of a text about a work made by somebody that counters the former exclusivity.
We asked ourselves whether it was necessary to emphasize the gender or color of those artists on display now as a remarkable fact. While this underlines their minority status, it also bears honest witness to the exclusionary context from within which their practice emerged, possibly against all odds. Alternatively, the text focuses on the work, and lets its presence in the gallery today resonate as self-evident.
For example, in the room about Fluxus in the new collection display, artist Mary Bauermeister is positioned as somebody around whom the movement pivots (fig. 5). In this case, we chose not to mention that Bauermeister was arguably overlooked by art history for many years or that the Fluxus movement mainly consisted of men. In this case we chose to do so because we want to stay as close to the artistic intentions of the maker as possible, who didn’t explicate gender as part of her practice. Of course, both can be valid strategies, but I think that mentioning gender only when an artist’s work is about gender, rather than only when the maker is a woman or other sexual minority, is an important position to take.
Fig. 5: Exhibition room centered on the Fluxus movement and Mary Bauermeister in Tomorrow is a Different Day, collection 1980–Now, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2022. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.
VM: “Talking about gender only when artist’s work is about gender” brings to mind “Female Sensibility”—the first exhibition room that borrows its name from Lynda Benglis’s video. The artist had been struggling with whether such a thing exists in art. From your publications background, how would you answer Benglis’s concern?
GP: Benglis was questioning whether there is such a thing as a female sensibility, examining the role of the woman artist at the height of the feminist movement in 1973 (fig. 6). As long as society treats and thus shapes people differently along gender lines, it is quite likely that different genders will produce different art: their human experiences are not the same, so neither will their expressions be. We cannot know what people are beyond our society, what all genders could be beyond patriarchy. What we do know is that the institutionalized exclusion has led many women artists, particularly those part of the feminist art movement that emerged at the end of the 1960s, to use their art to reshape the discourse. Many have also focused strongly on how women are different, precisely to emphasize the importance of their inclusion: without them, something is essentially missing.
Fig. 6: Lynda Benglis, Female Sensibility, 1973, video still, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam/ Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
In the exhibition space that you are referencing, we titled the corresponding wall text “Female Sensibility?” with a question mark, nudging visitors to wonder what such a sensibility might look like, and why it would emerge. Women artists are still not considered the “neutral” artistic submitter: would you ever call a work by Piet Mondrian an expression of a “male sensibility”? Currently, we prefer not to mention an artist’s “descriptors”, such as “woman”, “black”, “Muslim”, etc. in the texts about artworks, because would the Stedelijk also mention it if the artists are white, European, or atheist? Of course, it could, but then why not also mention their class, or their schooling, possibly equally influential to an individual’s shaping? What you choose to disclose in an effort to provide the reader with a sense of the artist’s lived experience, is implicitly communicating a lot about what the institute considers normality. And from this awareness we have chosen to stay as close to the artist’s intention and work as we possibly can, trying to let their practice steer our narrative, rather than the other way around.
VM: Thank you very much Gwen for sharing your point of view. Gender diversity is today a main topic in debates around the museum. I would like to conclude this interview by asking you about how the Stedelijk deals with gender diversity and the works of artists with backgrounds of migration who have been considered “diverse” or “other” in relation to the past museum modernist concept? What role do publications play in this respect?
GP: Much like language in general, the words we use at the museum are constantly evolving, as we work through its biases, both in terms of the legacy of art historical writing as well as those inherent to the English and Dutch languages. At this very moment we are pondering whether we should refer to women artists in Dutch as “kunstenaressen”, the female version of the word “kunstenaar”, which, strictly speaking refers to a male artist, not a gender-neutral one. The difficulty here is that we need to find a solution within a binary system—in itself something that seems unnecessarily restrictive, fictitious even, in any context, gender or otherwise. As part of the queer community myself I find this particular language predicament extremely challenging: the Dutch language currently does not offer a gender-neutral, or non-binary word for “artist”, while people dear to me would identify as such.
On the other hand, I also appreciate that emphasizing difference can be a useful tool, and is possibly a necessary phase in working toward liberation. As long as there is no “equality”, this needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Pretending that we live in a genderless, color-blind society, creating a language that has overcome difference in a society that has not, might not be sound activist practice. Once majority culture has acknowledged the oddity, we might be ready to move beyond this emphasis and start writing the art histories of tomorrow. Until then, we can find joy in experimenting with our strategies, and use both art and language to get there.
Senior Editor Gwen Parry (left) and Intern Valeria Mari (right) in conversation at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2022. Photo: Frederique Ursem.
 “Report Museums and Trust 2021,” Influence of Museum, American Alliance of Museums, last accessed August 24, 2022.
 Madonna, “Madonna Is the Wildest Party Favor,” interviewed by Nile Rodgers, Paper magazine, August 18, 2022,
 Vincent W.J. van Erven Goei, “Straight Innocence”, 2020, Essay, Stedelijk Studies, last accessed August 22, 2022,
 To investigate this in depth, the open call for research for the upcoming issue of Stedelijk Studies Journal pivoted on this policy proposal, with several academic and artistic explorations of this notion expected to be published in December 2022. “Call for Research,” Stedelijk Studies Journal #12, Stedelijk Studies, last accessed August 22, 2022, .